Opinion: Quarantine belongs under public health, stop categorising travelling Kiwis

7:26 pm on 10 August 2020

By Áine Kelly-Costello*

Opinion - Making compassion the exception for trips and short-term stays is a frightening prospect.

Travellers with face masks at Auckland Airport international arrivals during the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak on 20/3/2020.

Auckland airport. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

As a Kiwi student who happened to move to Sweden to study last year, I'm thrilled the government has acknowledged that it is unfair to charge New Zealanders currently overseas for their managed isolation or quarantine (MIQ) when returning home.

According to the significant legislation rushed through the House, charges would instead fall on those visiting New Zealand for less than 90 days, or leaving the country for any duration from 10 August and then returning.

Megan Woods - the minister in charge of managed isolation - has suggested arrangements would be made for those unable to pay upfront, and there would be exemptions for various groups including people travelling for compassionate reasons, diplomats and refugees.

But the new law falls short of the kind of comprehensive and caring public health response that made me so proud to be a Kiwi when the country sacrificed heaps by being kind, staying home and saving lives.

Firstly, the legislated MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) fees system will put bureaucracy in the way of compassion.

Regardless of whether a more prescriptive approach is taken or whether higher weighting is assigned to case-by-case assessments, drawing lines in the sand on fee waivers will be horrifically difficult.

There's something heartless about needing to explain, say, how likely it is you or a relative will die before you are exempt from a $3100 baseline charge which has the potential to majorly set you back.

Consider the daughter in the UK with stage three cancer who wants her New Zealand parents to be able to travel and care for her if it gets worse. What about if the cancer was "only" stage two?

The blurry lines don't stop there.

How about virtually every other conceivable situation of family reunification that doesn't involve provable imminent death?

Is it compassionate to charge older grandparent(s) thousands of dollars on top of airfares to visit their grandkids for the first, maybe only, time? Is it really fair to slap an extra fee on a parent using up all their annual leave to spend a couple cherished weeks with their kid (keeping in mind two weeks of that leave is necessarily lost to quarantine)?

These are not hypotheticals; in the Team of Six Million Facebook group, which opposes all quarantine fees, you will find countless such realities.

Human lives and travel needs have never done well fitting into limited, swiftly-imposed categories and the proposed regime, which strongly suggests compassion will be the exception rather than the rule, is set to designate such divides.

Regulations in line with the bill would see MBIE and "relevant ministers" playing God with exemption status, and to our shame, we'll have to pay for them to do it.

'From Twitter threads to the halls of Parliament'

Secondly, Woods, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Green Party have acknowledged that the yardstick for deciding on who pays for quarantine is fairness.

This sounds great at first. According to this line of thinking, it doesn't especially matter how little the system earns, as long as it is fair.

Indeed, projections are that the proposed scheme will defray less than $10 million even if $600,000 in administration costs are not factored in, while the forecast MIQ budget for 2020 is $479m. Clearly, we are talking about perceived fairness above financial benefit.

The problem is it is ridiculously difficult to decide on any kind of fee scheme that is, in fact, fair, because every trip comes with its own unique set of individual circumstances.

Placing this burden on tangata whenua feels to me like one more unjust act of colonisation.

Charging quarantine at both ends of many New Zealand-Australia trips also hardly seems equitable.

If that weren't enough, under current eligibility regulations, it would severely curtail the capacity of New Zealand citizens and permanent residents living overseas to vote.

I'd rather see the government use its time and resources to strengthen a system which stands proudly behind public health as a public good, repeal its MIQ fees legislation which has been rushed through without public consultation, and focus squarely on keeping New Zealand communities Covid-free.

Third, while the government's efforts to reach sufficient levels of agreement to move forward within its own ranks are at least constructive, it is to New Zealand's shame that the issue ever became the fraught and polarising topic it did, from Twitter threads to the halls of Parliament.

All parties except ACT voted for the legislation, but National and New Zealand First have continued indicating it does not go far enough, which is particularly concerning in light of the upcoming election.

Back in early May, New Zealand researchers warned us that the sense of social cohesion in the country would not miraculously maintain itself now, despite being very strong in the country's early response to Covid-19.

"The challenges will rise as the country begins to transition out of the acute phase," they wrote.

"Once social cohesion is lost, it becomes extremely difficult to restore, especially when there is both increased uncertainty and new forms of inequality."

The beautiful sense of unity in April with the teddy bears in the windows, the daily Jacinda and Ashley presser ritual, and calling the whānau over Zoom to beat the isolation was no accident.

It was the result of intentionally, diligently focusing on a nationally important goal and working together to achieve it.

Let's now focus on keeping New Zealand communities Covid-free while showing compassion to all of our fellow Kiwis and their families.

* Áine Kelly-Costello is a journalist and campaigner from Aotearoa completing her masters from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

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